Religion and Public Schools

Parent Q&A

How to gently address anti-religion teachings in school Jan 31, 2020 (11 responses below)
How to find a school that matches our beliefs May 8, 2017 (10 responses below)
  • I learned recently that my kids in elementary school are hearing anti-religion teachings in their public school from the teachers (I'm still trying to find out if it is their main teacher, subject matter teacher or after school teacher).  It is public school so more than happy for religion to be not-addressed or described generally from historical perspective, but they come home saying the teacher said "God is a made up being some people believe in to feel better," or "as you go further in school you will see that all of the Bible stories have explanations in science" or "God is kind of like a fairy but for adults."  It caused some in depth conversations at home and I addressed it with the kids to the extent I could but I was very unhappy to hear it.  We are not even that religious -- we believe in evolution and science, are professionals and highly educated, and are not blindly following religion (so public school seemed ok, and I don't want to move them to religious private school even though we can afford it), but we do believe in God and observe some of the religious customs and teachings.  I don't expect the school or the teachers to follow or believe in any of it, but I do expect that they don't call our family's and many other religious' families' believes "a made up story" and say God is just something some people believe in like you believe in the tooth fairy to my elementary school children.  I'm going to try to find out which teacher is saying this, but then what.  It just seems like such a sensitive topic to bring up with the teacher, or maybe I should go straight to principal to avoid a direct conflict -- I know religion is not popular in the bay area and many folks don't believe which is fine and I would not care if this came from a friend but I don't think a teacher has a right to go there and want to make sure he/she is more careful in future as I know we are not the only religious family in the school even though very few if any know that we are religious so they might not be as careful around my kids as they are around others. 

    I put this in the same category as when the teacher tells the kids things I consider to be age-inappropriate. For example, last week, my daughter's fourth grade teacher felt the need to tell the class both about Kobe Bryant's helicopter crash, and the coronavirus pandemic. I was like, really? What was the point of that, other than freaking the kids out? So it led to conversations at home, which ultimately is my job as the parent - to help my children navigate the information they receive at school and mesh it with our family's values. I am not bringing it up to the teacher - she's gonna say what she's gonna say; her judgement of what's appropriate is obviously not mine, but I don't want her to feel like I'm censoring her.

    I would first verify who is saying this and in what context, which it sounds like you're doing. Kids can get things pretty mixed up in the re-telling. If it did come from a teacher during instructional time, I would definitely address it directly with the teacher. It's always better to speak directly (not email) with someone rather than going around them. If the teacher acknowledges the gist of what your kids said and is not willing to work with you, then go to the principal. I would be really displeased to hear proselytizing of any kind - including this kind - at my child's school. 

    Yikes. That's so disrespectful, and such an oversimplified view of religion and spirituality. I don't have school-aged kids yet so I'm not sure whether approaching the teacher or the principal is better, but I do think you should speak out. Maybe just a simple "Tolerance of philosophical differences is an important social skill in a pluralistic society, and it's important to us that the teachers model that"?

  • Hope is ok to ask question like this...

    My husband and I are planning ahead for our son education path, picking school, should we move? private school? There nothing much we are looking into as we both believe every kids learn differently, as long as students don't sell drug we are ok with the school.

    However, there only one thing we really concern and would like to look around is “teaching gender differences”. This is really a big thing for us as a Jesus believer and really don't want our son feel confuse if the school are teaching different than what we believe.

    So, how other Christian parents choose at the end? and how was it? really need some advice...

    sounds like you should definitely pick a Catholic school. My hope is that you won't find any school at all, of course. I don't remember Jesus saying anything bad about transgender people, but maybe you read a different Bible than I do. 

    Is it possible that Jesus would be accepting of gender differences? 

    I am confused by what you mean as "teaching gender differences."  Do you mean teaching traditional gender *roles*, like having home economics class for girls and woodshop class for boys?  Or are you referring to sexual orientation, and teaching that women should marry men (i.e. you want a school that teaches that homosexuality is wrong)?  These are my two best guesses from your message.  If either one of them is true, then I think the only school you will find satisfactory is a private, conservative Christian school.  A Bay Area public school is not going to teach either of these things.  I say a "conservative" Christian school, because I also am a devout Christian, but don't agree with either of these statements -- the religious school that I would consider sending my child to doesn't include either of these teachings.  If a private school is out of reach financially, you could also move to a more conservative area of the state/country, where a public school might be more inclined to teach either/both of these messages.  Good luck in your search.

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Son is learning religious songs in public school

March 2002

Dear Parents & Educators,
I heard my 9 year old son joyfully singing yesterday, and then I realized the songs made reference to ''Lord O Lord'' and ''take me to Mt. Zion, Lord''. My son said he learned these songs in music class, which infuriates me since he attends public school. On one hand, it's great that my kid is getting a music/singing class, but I am upset because what's done is done and I can't change the fact that now my kid knows these songs, despite my own highly feminist, everything-with-a-grain-of-salt agnostic beliefs. Do I have any grounds for recourse? What can I do? Isn't this a violation of our first amendment rights???

I have to say I'm of mixed emotion about this issue. I did a lot of singing in all of my public education (choirs up through college at a UC) and the majority of western music out there is christian-themed. The musical masters of the past many centuries did this presumably becuase everyone did and the much more authoritarian church of the time pretty much demanded it. However, these are great pieces of music no matter what the words are saying.

I too am some flavor of agnostic or athiest or something, and am very disenchanted by how most people of the world are doing the exact wrong things with their religious beliefs (ie using them for hatred, wars, elitism, etc). But on the other hand if I were ever to be a music teacher in a public school, I imagine a fraction of the songs I'd do would be older classics, which means some will be religious. As long as the teacher isn't trying to convey a lot meaning to the students from the words in these songs, I wouldn't worry to much about it, personally. Similarly I wouldn't be upset by my kids learning some songs/games/dance from other cultures that happened to be relegious in origin. MCM

If you don't allow your child contact to any religious songs in school, you are depriving him of some very beautiful music. Goodby to all the Bach cantatas, for that matter, nearly all early music such as Gregorian chants, bye-bye to major pieces that have an important place in our culture such as Handel's Messiah and Beethovan's Ode to Joy... the beautiful Masses and Requiums of Mozart... many other beloved composers who wrote for the Church or to honor religious holidays. Not just Christian music but for other religions too. And there is a wealth of more recent American music that you'd have to bid farewell to .. goodby to a lot of bluegrass, the great old country songs, and all those soul-stirring gospel tunes -- much of the music from the Civil Rights era was either adapted from earlier church music or used directly. Goodby Paul Robeson and Marion Anderson. Goodby to all the gospel tunes of Aretha et al. Personally, speaking as a non-believer and a major music fan, I would be much happier if my children were learning Hark the Herald Angels & Go tell it on the Mountain instead of pap like Rudolf & Frosty! Ginger

I am totally in favor of separation of church and state! But, I also believe that knowledge is power, and ignorance is not bliss. My daughter attends a local public school and has learned Jewish songs (we are not Jewish), Christian songs (we are not Christian, either), and so on. But, although these songs are religious, they are also (at this point) American Folk Songs. They are part of the fabric that makes up this multicultural, multireligious Bay Area. I would be a bit worried if she came home and told me that they were praying in school, or something like that, but to sing a song that has (or once had) a religious meaning seems fairly harmless, especially when that song has become one that belongs to us all, not just the religous among us. Enjoy your child's voice! Mary

This would freak me out too! What about the children in that music class whose parents are raising them in a Muslim, Buddhist, Druid, or Atheist family, etc.? In my opinion, a public school should not be teaching songs that reference deities from a specific belief system. You have every right as a parent to contact the school administration and ask that they examine the music teacher's song list and ask that this teacher remove the songs that are inappropriate for a public (funded by the government) school. Marianne

I am sorry to hear that your child is doing something that offends you, but please put this into perspective before you approach the subject. Are you only upset because it is Judeo-Christian? What about the new Muslim teaching that includes the children reading from the Koran, dressing up for Ramadon, etc? Does that upset you? If you are against all forms then by all means please talk to your principal. I don't like the increasing trend of parents not being able to stand their children uttering something for which the Country was founded, but openly embrace all other forms of ''religious enlighening'' from the public schools. I hope that you think before you act. Tolerance is not only for those who must tolerate your beliefs. Concerned Parent who wishes she could sign without reprocussions from the community.

There is a distinction, I think, between singing a song in the context of a music class and singing that same song during an involuntary religious ceremony. These songs are not being used to worship a deity, and have as much religious charge as 'Old MacDonald Has A Farm.' This country has a rich musical tradition of bluegrass and gospel songs that do contain religious references but are sung in a secular context. Janet

If your child learned songs with Christian overtones in the Berkeley Public Schools, I'm actually glad to hear it -- but surprised. It's been my experience that the schools here are TOO concerned about what you call ''Separation of Church and State'' -- and almost paranoid regarding any hint of Christianity.

I think you should relax and be guided by the fact that your child did not feel traumatized by this event...

The school is not teaching him religion. He learned a song that includes religious words. (a parallel would be teaching sex education -- learning ABOUT it isn't the same as having it or forcing others to).

You are the most important influence in your sons life. You can use the incident as a stepping off place for a discussion of religion. Tell him what you do (or don't) believe, and why. In your place I would be teaching him that tolerance also includes respect for, and interest in the religions of others, even Christians. Heather

OK, I know I will be in the minority here, but I don't think this is so terrible. At age nine, I'd be happy he isn't belting out the lyrics to some Nine Inch Nails number. If there are other signs of religious brainwashing at the school, OK, protest, but the fact that these songs have what sounds like some sort of basis in the Old Testament to me doesn't make them automatic anathema. You say your own philosophy is take it with a grain of salt - I'd take this with a grain of salt too, and perhaps a pinch of humor. Fran

Personally I don't see this as a separation of church and state issue. There is a difference between teaching and preaching, and just because a teacher covers a topic that may be related to a specific religion doesn't mean that they are preaching it.

In fact, our state has adopted standards of education in every subject, and at every grade level that include teaching children about different cultures and religions. Here is the link to the state's curriculum standards:

I did a cursory look into the Visual and Performing Arts standards and at about every grade level it specifies that students are to learn about varieties of music, and to analyze it from different historic and cultural perspectives. Based on that, I would say that your child's music teacher is simply following the standards she is required to teach.

By the way, I don't recall if you said what grade level your child is in, but if singing a spiritual song in music class is upsetting, then I would advise you to brace yourself for the future. In Social Studies your child will be learning about different religions as part of the state's curriculum.

As a teacher I have had some parents who questioned why I taught certain subjects. Believe me, it is not to promote my religious or cultural preference. I teach Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity because they are all required topics. I don't think that learning about these topics is detrimental to students anyway. We live in a diverse society. If the students aren't taught about different cultures and religions they can't help but have a very narrow view of the world. I suggest to parents that they read the text book that we use in class, that they talk to the students about what we are learning, and that they discuss their own beliefs with their children. Kids understand that not everyone is the same. They can handle knowing about something other people believe in with out adopting it as their own. a mom who is a teacher

I just want to add a little to discussion. Not only are these ''religious songs'' part of our culture, remember, they were often full of double meanings during slavery and the Underground Railroad. Another reason they are used so much is they are often limited in vocal range and are easy, repetitive melodies, good for inexperienced singers. Deborah